Category Archives: Usability

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When graphics lie

The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a story today about the origin of guns used in crimes in the city. This is an issue that people are concerned about and it deserves coverage. Rather than present information about gun laws in various states and numbers of crime gun recovered as a boring list, the PD provided a helpful infographic.

Maps and bar charts can be really useful tools to help people make sense of information. But look closely and you’ll see a problem – the bar chart showing the relative number of crime guns recovered is wrong:


At first glance it looks like about as many guns are recovered from Cleveland as from Cincinatti and Columbus. But the Cleveland number is really about 65% of the Columbus number.

This is probably just an error, akin to misspelling someone’s name in an article. But it’s a good example of a bad graphic, sometimes called chartjunk. Ignoring the error, a bar chart like this might conceal more than it conveys. The top three cities are much larger than the rest, so wouldn’t we expect them to have more guns seized? Maybe a measure per 1000 persons would be better. We also need to think about what this chart implies to readers – is a higher number worse, because it correlates to more crimes, or better, because it means police departments are doing a good job of taking guns off the streets?

If you’re interested in reading more about how to design good graphics and communicate large amounts of data effectively, take a look at the books of Edward Tufte.

48 Hours with an iPhone

Okay, so I’ve had my iPhone for a while now, but back when I got it I took a few notes about my first impressions.  I thought I’d clean them up a bit and post my thoughts for anyone who still on the fence about buying one.

I, like a lot of you, have been following the iPhone since it was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye.  Hundreds of bloggers and journalists have written about the device.  Now that I’ve had one for two days, does it meet the hype?

Before I write down a few thoughts, I have to say that my wife got me the iPhone as an anniversary present.  My Treo 650 has become increasingly frustrating, freezing up silently and making it impossible to get in touch with me.  I’ve also been informed that this counts as Christmas 2007 as well, which is fine by me.

My first experience with the iPhone was a bit frustrating.  My main desktop is still on Windows 2000.  Unfortunately, even though I had the latest version of iTunes, I needed Windows XP, Vista, or OSX to sync with the iPhone.  I had to activate the phone using my wife’s iBook.  Activation was very quick and painless – as a current AT&T customer who already has a data plan and iTunes account I would imagine I’m the ideal case.

The iPhone does a lot of things very well.  Safari is a great web browser, with one caveat I’ll talk more about below.  The large, high resolution screen makes web surfing a much better experience than my Treo.  The screen is amazingly bright – I have it set at the default, halfway setting and could still read everything easily in the bright sun.  I love the way it picks up nearby wifi networks and then remembers once you’ve okayed a particular one – at home, web surfing is very fast.  Surfing on the AT&T network is noticeably slower but usable.  At least once or twice it seemed to stall completely.

I put a few mp3s and photos on it and the process is pretty painless.  So far iTunes seems a lot easier to use than the Palm Desktop software for my Treo which always seemed a little odd to me.

How does it work as a phone?  Very well.  The speakerphone is loud and clear and everyone on the other end has told me I sound great.  I even took a work call on a Sunday night, and it seemed everyone else on the bridge had background noise problems but me.

The biggest frustration for me so far (other than the incompatibility issues) has been that Safari is so much like a real browser that it tricked me into thinking it was a real browser.  I’ll explain.  I have some photos up on Flickr and my wife was using her iBook so I thought I would just grab photos online instead of syncing them.  No dice.  There’s no way to actually save pictures, or anything for that matter, from the web.  Now I know Safari can save things, that’s how web browsers work, they download and cache files to display them to you.  So why is it impossible to save a photo to my photos?  I wonder if this is Apple trying to make it simpler for novice users or AT&T trying to keep people from skipping services somehow.

Either way it’s disappointing.  It shows you why so many people are rushing to hack the iPhone – there’s a lot of untapped potential there.

I mentioned that iTunes was easy to use, but the syncing process does have one fatal flaw: I can’t seem to figure out how to do a real backup, other than syncing again to a recent version of Outlook.  I really just want a file system I can copy to a CD (or better yet, let Mozy automatically back up).

Anyone else have an iPhone?  Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

The importance of design – Can you read this at 60 MPH?

The New York Times had a great article a few months ago about redesigning the font used on highway signs.  You’ve probably seen the current font, Highway Gothic, a million times without ever thinking about it – it’s been in use for more than 50 years.

Granphic from the New York TimesWorrying about the font on the signs seems pretty silly compared to all the engineering and resources that go into a single bridge, let alone the entire highway system.  Why does this merit an article in the Times and what does this have to do with programing, web development, social software, or any of the topics many visitors to this blog are interested in?

Programmers and analysts sometimes doubt the value of design.  It’s hard work gathering all the requirements and writing all the code – we don’t have time to worry about how pretty it looks.  A lot of projects we work on, though, involve creating user interfaces, often web applications.  That means that, when it comes down to it, your job is to support the user’s tasks.

Now if someone wanted to add 10% to your hours to pick just the right shade of chartruse, you would be justifiably miffed.  But good interface designers will have good, empirically-tested reasons for their work and the guidelines they live by.  Highway signs are a great example of this kind of empirical benefit:

Intrigued by the early positive results, the researchers took the prototype out onto the test track. Drivers recruited from the nearby town of State College drove around the mock highway. From the back seat, Pietrucha and Garvey recorded at what distance the subjects could read a pair of highway signs, one printed in Highway Gothic and the other in Clearview. Researchers from 3M came up with the text, made-up names like Dorset and Conyer ? words that were easy to read. In nighttime tests, Clearview showed a 16 percent improvement in recognition over Highway Gothic, meaning drivers traveling at 60 miles per hour would have an extra one to two seconds to make a decision.

A one or two second gain in legibility matters a lot when your life depends on it.  Few web applications present the same kind of physical danger, but multiply a small gain over an application with 10,000 users, operating 24 hours a day for a year, and you can see how this can impact the business.  Good design is part of the larger concept of usability.  As anyone who’s done any usability testing can tell you, most applications have many small, easy-to-change pitfalls that can quickly add up to huge wastes of time and effort.